A Comprehensive Guide to K-12 Cybersecurity and Safety

Whether they take the form of a targeted attack or an accidental leak, cyber incidents are a major threat to the U.S. school system.

From public school districts to higher education and everywhere in between, malicious actors are chomping at the bit to get ahold of student data. Of course, hackers are just one part of the problem.

Education institutions are also struggling to keep personal information safe from internal cyber risk. Worse yet, transformative classroom technologies are making it harder than ever to uncover student safety signals and mitigate preventable incidents.

Luckily, it’s not hard to pinpoint the solution: Schools need insight into what’s lurking behind the scenes, no matter whether that’s a potential cyber attack or inappropriate content. The only problem? As it turns out, visibility isn’t so easy to obtain.

Let’s explore everything you need to know about K-12 cybersecurity and safety, including what your school district can do to better protect students from cyber risk.

The importance of cybersecurity and cyber safety

At first glance, you might assume K-12 cybersecurity and cyber safety are one and the same. Indeed, both are concerned with student well-being, but there’s a notable difference.

Specifically, cybersecurity involves proactively safeguarding sensitive information from a potential threat. This can include both internal and external cyber risk factors such as a student inappropriately accessing data on a school-provided device or a threat actor attempting a data breach.

On the other hand, cyber safety is more associated with ensuring students and staff members are safe from physical or emotional harm stemming from cyber incidents; the goal being to prevent such incidents in the first place. (Looking for an example? More on this later.)

The common denominator is that both are crucial in today’s increasingly digital school district.

The role of K-12 cybersecurity

According to a recent report, the K-12 school system experienced a 275% increase in ransomware, 157% rise in malware, and 146% leap in IoT attacks — all in 2022 alone.

In essence, that means malicious actors are targeting K12 schools at an accelerated rate. Why? Because they’re a goldmine of sensitive data. Whether you’re a private or public school, chances are you’re processing the following:

  • Personal information (names, addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers)
  • Financial data (credit card numbers, payment histories, etc.)
  • Academic records (class rosters, schedules, grades, disciplinary history)
  • Personal health information (medical histories, allergies, student conditions)

And, because your district has this information, it’s safe to say your edtech vendors do, too. When you allow vendors to access your data, you’re entrusting them to mitigate cybersecurity risk. But, if their abilities are lacking, a third-party data breach could expose your student data — at which point, anything could happen. There’s no telling how a threat actor might exploit your personal information.

[WEBINAR RECORDING] K-12 Tech's Security & Investigation Survival Guide | WATCH HERE -->>

Why cyber safety must be a priority

Where safety is concerned, your school district must also be wary of how students and staff are using technology.

Despite their benefits, edtech tools — and cloud applications especially — aren’t always operated with the best intentions. For instance, a student may use a school-provided cloud resource (such as a Google Doc) to cyberbully a classmate. Another cyber risk to consider is that users could be using apps to share inappropriate content, such as pornography or depictions of graphic violence.

Not only are these incidents harmful to youths, but they also violate the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). CIPA requires you to implement internet security and safety policies for monitoring activity and blocking access to content deemed obscene, inappropriate, illegal, or harmful to minors.

Per the Federal Communications Commission, violating CIPA can result in your school district losing its E-Rate eligibility.

Top K-12 cloud security risks

More than just school network or endpoint protection, education institutions are in dire need of cloud security.

Many districts rapidly adopted cloud services during the pandemic. According to CoSN’s EdTech Leadership Survey, 97% are using some type of cloud-hosted learning management system. This corroborates our own research in collaboration with EdWeek, which found that over 90% of schools are using cloud domains like Google Workspace or Microsoft 365.

Unfortunately, as cloud technologies rose to the forefront of the school system, so did cybersecurity threat vectors of all shapes and sizes.

“With the available data we saw a three-fold increase in cyber incidents affecting the K-12 education sector last year,” said Doug Levin, co-founder and director of the K12 Security Information Exchange. “That increase was due to the greater [uptick] of technology by schools … and the exploitation of IT systems of third-party educational technology vendors that schools rely upon.”

What’s important to remember is that remote learning isn’t going anywhere. In fact, CoSN’s 2022 report indicates that about a quarter of schools offer hybrid learning options in the 2022-23 academic year.

Common K-12 cloud security threats

Sadly, education institutions aren’t putting much of their budget into securing student data. When they do, most of their resources are put toward school network security — not the cloud.

Consequently, they’re vulnerable to countless cloud-based attack strategies and risks. Let’s unpack some of the most common ones:

  • Account takeovers: Also known as account hijacking, this type of cyber attack involves a threat actor cracking into a user’s account. This gives them unfettered access to whatever resources that user has available to them, such as Google Drive or OneDrive. Takeovers may be the result of a data breach, weak login credentials, or the precedent to a much larger cybersecurity threat.
  • Ransomware attacks: A ransomware attack is specifically designed to covertly infiltrate your system and quietly steal personal information or take an important resource offline. Malicious actors then demand payment in order to restore systems and return sensitive data under threat of exposure.
  • Malware: Better known as a virus, malware is software made only to infect your district and steal its data. Malware may be injected into your domain through a compromised application or downloaded as an email attachment, among other ways.
  • Phishing: As a social engineering tactic, phishing relies on tricking someone into divulging information such as a password or sensitive detail.
  • Third-party risk: We’ve mentioned how vendors put your data in danger. What’s also critical to note is that edtech vendors may themselves be inappropriately processing or selling student data (which violates many state laws).
  • Accidental exposure: Risky file sharing, open permissions — the list goes on. Students or staff may mistakenly disseminate files that contain sensitive data.

Top K-12 school security and student safety risks

Inappropriate and harmful behavior among students has long been a lingering problem in the U.S. school system. Although strides have been made over the years, recent tech developments are further stoking the flames of toxicity.

Of course, schools were struggling with cyberbullying well before they ever adopted cloud technology. But, with more digital channels in students’ hands than ever before, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to monitor, investigate, and prevent.

  • Inappropriate content: As mentioned, CIPA dictates that your district protect students from harmful exposure to inappropriate content, including sexually graphic or violent images. Believe it or not, students sometimes use cloud apps like a Google Doc to “sext” one another, which means there could be child pornography located in your cloud storage.
  • Cyberbullying: From targeted slideshows to folders of mean-spirited memes about their classmates, cyberbullying runs rampant in the cloud. Worse yet, cloud files may contain evidence of physical bullying, too (for instance, mentions of a previous incident).
  • Self-harm: Mental health is a constant battle. Some students may be documenting their experiences in Google Docs and other apps or discussing their self-harm with classmates.
  • Suicidal ideation: Some kids use word applications as diaries, journaling their personal thoughts and even contemplating suicide in writing.
  • Student violence: The unfortunate truth is that school violence happens. Discovering evidence of potential or past violence is key to preventing avoidable tragedies and giving students the help they deserve.

It’s no surprise that toxicity comes in many forms. What’s more shocking is that there might be traces of them floating around your cloud domain.

[WEBINAR RECORDING] K-12 Tech's Security & Investigation Survival Guide | WATCH HERE -->>

How to protect your school from cloud-based threats

K-12 cybersecurity isn’t a walk in the park, but we’re here to help. Here are a few of our cybersecurity recommendations — plus a few quick tips — to help you shield your school district.

Cybersecurity education

It’s important for all users to understand their role and responsibility in keeping the district safe from cyber risk. Both students and staff should be trained on best practices. That way, everyone can do their part.

Here are a few tips you can use when safeguarding your district:

  1. Check for personal information wherever it exists in your domain. Make sure users aren’t accessing data they shouldn’t be and focus your efforts on the most sensitive information.
  2. Think before you download or install new applications. Each additional app expands your attack surface, rendering you more vulnerable to a data breach.
  3. Look for a solution that’s easy to use. Software alone can’t solve your problems without trained personnel to implement it. However, most schools don’t have the resources for full-time cybersecurity professionals on staff. That’s why it’s important to have an easy-to-use tool that won’t require much training or support.

Cloud monitoring

The biggest pain point IT administrators have is that they can’t see the full scope of their cloud domain. A cloud monitoring tool can take you behind the scenes of what’s really happening, unearthing previously hidden risks and enabling you to intervene.

Data loss prevention (DLP)

DLP software is a cybersecurity tool that focuses on preventing critical information from being exposed. With DLP, you can implement custom policies — or rules — that users must follow when it comes to the cloud. If a student downloads an unsanctioned app, you’ll be notified right away of exactly who’s involved and what actions they took. If someone is discussing suicide or self-harm, you’ll be similarly alerted and can implement the appropriate response protocol.

Cloud Access Security Broker (CASB)

Sometimes, all you need is a buffer between your district and the cloud. That’s what CASB has to offer.

When you have a solution with CASB capabilities, you can insert an additional security layer that users must bypass before accessing cloud services. Cloud access security brokers are designed to give you more visibility into who has access to data and how they use it. That way, they can identify suspicious user activity and stop malicious actors in their tracks.

All things considered, K-12 cybersecurity isn’t simple. A lot of factors are at play, and you need every advantage you can get to protect your students.

Luckily, that’s what ManagedMethods is for. With our automated cloud security platform, you get all these capabilities rolled into one easy-to-use dashboard.

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